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Don Weise: Magnus Rising

Don Weise: Magnus Rising

Author: William Johnson

February 3, 2013

“I think debates over what makes a book great are largely among writers and people who teach literature. The rest of us I don’t think really care. I’d say we’re more interested in whether we connect with a book…”

A renowned stalwart in the publishing industry, Don Weise has over two decades worth of publishing experience, most of which has been dedicated to publishing LGBT literature. He’s served as Publisher of Alyson Books and was the Senior Editor at Carroll & Graf Publishers. Wiese also sits on the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation. In 2010, Wiese started his own LGBT publishing house, Magnus Books. Since its inception, Magnus has published books by an assortment of iconic authors, such as Samuel Delany, Urvashi Vaid, Keith Boykin, and Edmund White.

Last month Magnus Books announced a new publishing venture with Riverdale Avenue Books (RAB), a publisher headed by veteran literary agent Lori Perkins, which specializes in e-books and audiobooks. The Riverdale/Magnus Books joint venture will publish some 24 LGBT titles a year.

Wiese took some time to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about the new joint venture, the future of LGBT publishing, and what characteristics make a book “great.”

What inspired Magnus’ joint venture with Riverdale Ave Books (RAB)?

I’ve known and worked with Lori Perkins as an agent for the past 10 years and she’s always been one of my favorite people in publishing. She understands me and the work I do better than any colleague I can think of. It got to the point where we could finish each other’s sentences. We’d talked about joining forces for a long time, but I never thought we’d actually do it.

However, the changes in the publishing industry over the past couple years have been so dramatic and unpredictable, more so than I’ve ever seen in 20 years—and I don’t expect the changes to slow down or stop—that the traditional model of cataloging books a year or more in advance and then printing hundreds of copies that might never sell suddenly felt impractical if not insane. The costs were too big and at the same time unnecessary when there are smart, cost-effective alternatives like print on demand publishing, which is our model, along with e-publishing, at Riverdale. By doing this I eliminate my two biggest challenges: print costs and returns. I just wish I’d done this sooner.

How does this venture affect or enhance Magnus’ mission.

The mission remains unchanged mostly—I think it’s because Lori admires the work I’m doing that she proposed partnering in the first place. As an agent and editor, she’s been a big proponent of LGBT books and she wanted the new venture to feature gay lit prominently. I loved the idea because by working with her Magnus would have more resources than ever before. For example, I will have foreign rights agents selling in 15 territories—previously my job—and we’re partnering with an audio company, so books will automatically have audio editions as well. The resources she offers will free up huge amounts of time for me and help generate revenue in areas not currently exploited.

What are the particulars of the venture?

Lori started Riverdale Avenue Books under the premise that books are entertainment and that readers will come back for more books from publishers who consistently deliver what they like. All five of the launch imprints are designed to be what she calls “consumable.” They include Pop, Desire (erotica and erotic romance), Truth (erotic memoir), HSF (horror, science fiction and fantasy) and Magnus, of course.

We have a New York office in the former office of Baen Books, a company that Lori considers to be the first successful genre e-publisher (they relocated to North Carolina three years ago). Our contracts and foreign rights department operates out of there. We also have an assistant and are looking for interns in both the editorial and promotion area. Our production department is off-site.

Are you working side by side with Lori Perkins to decide what is published by Magnus/RAB?

We’ll definitely work in tandem. Lori’s been in the business even longer than I have, so I welcome her expertise. I say this not just because I value her input but also because it’s a mutually respectful/admiring partnership. When we first sat down to talk about working together, we went over the titles I had slated for 2013, one by one. After completing the review, she said, “Don, this is a really good list of titles.” I knew it was a good list, but it heartened me to hear someone else say it—especially my business partner—because no one sees these books till they’re announced  and up to that time it can be a lonely, self-doubting experience where you’re not completely sure what will work. Books that should have taken off don’t while titles you had only modest expectations for excel. Going forward I’ll do many of the same kinds of titles I’ve always published, i.e. memoir, literary fiction, sex, self-help, but you’ll see more popular culture and genre fiction than I’ve done before.

Will you each have different duties/oversight within this joint venture?

Magnus is part of the RAB line-up, and as such, we work together, although I am ultimately responsible for the editorial content. Lori is the publisher, so she oversees the editorial in the other imprints, as well as all the production, publicity, and sales. But we consult on everything.

Is there a certain literary aesthetic or subject matter that you look for in the books you seek to publish?

The first questions I still ask myself about any book I’m considering are: who is the audience and how do I reach them? I don’t see LGBT as a category per se. In mainstream publishing, LGBT tends to be seen as monolithic—as if there’s something called a Gay Book that presumably every gay person will buy and read, regardless of gender, race, age, tastes in literature, because it’s gay-themed. That’s the furthest thing from reality as most of us know. Even when talking about gay men’s literature, what gay men do we mean? Guys who read commercial fiction exclusively? Guys who read academic works? Guys interested in erotica and sex-themed literature primarily? Guys who read all of the above? These men aren’t necessarily going to the same places to find out about books nor are they likely to care about gay books that fall outside their area of interest. So for me it comes down to knowing who more specifically a book is for, ideally the widest audience possible, but there’s something to be said, too, for communities within communities that are under-served and therefore looking for books that speak to their experiences. I’ve done a lot of publishing in this latter area, as a matter of fact. I suppose it’s because I want always to enlarge our definitions of LGBT life beyond predictable assumptions and expectations.

Lambda recently interviewed critic Daniel Mendelsohn and he stated, “ [a] book that is only meaningful to the gay reader cannot be a great book. It is precisely the gay book’s ability to be interesting to a straight reader that makes it a great book. [….] What makes literature literature is precisely its ability to go beyond borders, beyond identities.” Any thoughts on Mendelshon’s views concerning literature? 

I think debates over what makes a book great are largely among writers and people who teach literature. The rest of us I don’t think really care. I’d say we’re more interested in whether we connect with a book, meaning whether it excites us, compels us, shows us the world in a new way, makes us laugh, arouses us, makes us want to read more by the same author. I happen to love the writing of the African American gay poet Essex Hemphill—so much so that I reissued one of his books, Ceremonies. But do straight people read him? Do gay people even read him? Does the answer to either question reflect on the merits of his writing? Does it matter ultimately? More important to me is the fact that his poem to his mother, “In the Life,” still makes me cry after 15 years. That closing line about her never noticing “the absence of rice and bridesmaids” will forever choke me up, and how much greater can literature get than that?

I read the interview with Daniel Mendelsohn and there was much to be admired in what he had to say. I don’t know him but he’s obviously a smart and insightful guy. But when the topic turns to Edmund White and his low opinion of him, Daniel sounds deeply envious and infantile. When he calls Edmund “a kind of mid-level writer who was able to have a career that was disproportionately important to his actual talent because there was a gay niche where a mediocre writer could flourish as a significant figure” and then goes on to dismiss Edmund’s marvelous and critically-acclaimed City Boy as a “crappy,” “lazy,” “sloppy” book that didn’t say “anything of particular interest about gay experience,” I wonder if this has more to do with “the great is the enemy of the good.” I can’t speak to Daniel’s own writing—I don’t think I’ve read him, nor does his work ever come up in conversation—but you have to ask yourself what’s really behind this when he goes to such uncalled for extremes in a public forum. He says he hasn’t met Edmund but hears he’s a “darling person.” Well, I do know Edmund and can assure you he’s that and much more. Besides being a fascinating raconteur and best-read person I know, he’s also the most generous, big-hearted, unpretentious person I can think of—especially for someone who’s a celebrated writer and doesn’t have to be any of those things if he doesn’t want to. As with Samuel Delany and John Rechy, I love the man as much as his work, and I wish there were more people I could say that about.

As you mentioned, things in the publishing industry are changing at a rapid clip. Since leaving Alyson and founding Magnus, what new publishing insights have you gained?

The biggest lesson for me has been to try and stop thinking along traditional lines of publishing, in every sense of those words. So much has changed over such a short period that decisions I made, even as recently as a year ago, I would today do differently. But you make the best choices you can with the information you have at the time and punishing yourself for not being able to predict the future really has no place or purpose. I would say in this sense the insights I’ve gained apply beyond just the business world. Sometimes in the navigating of challenging professional situations, including painful moments that you can’t imagine your way out of, you gain a broader insight. Much of this is professional insight—you learn to be a better business person, but for some people you also learn to see yourself and your path, so to speak, in a more spiritual way and that impacts not only how you operate as a business person but also as an individual.

Do you have a vision of what LGBT publishing will look like in the next ten years?

Susie Bright paid me the highest compliment when she first saw the Magnus website. She called and said, “This is what I hoped LGBT publishing would one day look like.” I saved her phone message for weeks because, believe it or not, writers are not the only people desperate for recognition! I’m not sure, though, what I’d predict for the next decade of LGBT publishing. I’d guess for the most part the same kinds of books will be published, but where the real change will take place is in how they’re produced, sold, and read. It may look radically different or the change may not be as all consuming as some predict. Anything is possible.

Since founding Magnus, are there any projects you have been particularly proud of?

So many of them, but I wouldn’t want to single out any one. I hope though that those writers by now know who they are. I’ve been lucky to have worked with some incredible people, almost all of whom I’d gladly work with again.

What can we look forward to in the upcoming year from Magnus/ Riverdale Ave Books?

First are three titles that were announced some time back but were delayed due to the transition of Magnus. They happen to be three books I’m especially excited about.

American Hipster by Hilary Holladay is the first biography of Beat godfather Herbert Huncke, who coined the word “beat” and served as the group’s authority on drugs, gay sex, and the underworld of Times Square. Every time I re-read this book I’m knocked out by it all over again. It’s meticulously researched but also laugh-out-loud funny in places.

Alan Cumming’s anti-circumcision book, May the Foreskin Be With You, is as extraordinary as Alan himself. It looks at how circumcision came into being, how it became more prevalent, and ultimately why it’s harmful, even dangerous, not to mention unnecessary. I came to this title not knowing much about the debates but after reading the manuscript, I’m completely on board with Alan and fellow activists.

Best-Kept Boy in the World by Arthur Vanderbilt tells for the first time the incredible story of Denny Fouts, the most famous male prostitute of the 20th century, who appears more or less as himself in the fiction of Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, and Somerset Maugham, all of whom were fascinated by Denny.

Deeply Superficial, now out, is Michael Menzies’ hilarious, and at times, really touching memoir about his lifelong obsession with Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, whom the author believed all through childhood were  his birth parents—because he couldn’t possibly be the son of his very unglamorous actual birth parents. The book takes readers around the world as the author chases after the stars’ legendary pasts.

In fiction, I just finished final edits on The Red Shoes by John Stewart Wynne, which is one of best novels I’ve ever worked on (no heterosexual has weighed in on the book, however, so we don’t yet know if this is a “great” book or just a “meaningful” one. I like it anyway).

I should also mention Ethan Mordden’s upcoming novella and stories, Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man, as well as Zane Thimmesch Gill’s harrowing Hiding in Plain Sight, a memoir of being a homeless transgender youth, and new editions of Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men and Riki Ann Wilchin’s Read My Lips.

Something I just signed and I’m very excited by is journalist Tim Teeman’s unauthorized biography of Gore Vidal, which for the first time focuses on the author’s romantic and sexual lives. I listened to one of Tim’s interviews and was bowled over by the never-before-told stories of his life in Hollywood by those who knew Vidal and sometimes slept with him. This is explosive stuff! And it only makes me love Vidal more.

We’ve been discussing doing a biography of Ellen Degeneres, and are looking for a pop culture lesbian writer. We’re also considering a biography of Anderson Cooper.

William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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